This article is based on articles by Boris Bondarenko and Vitali Shafranov, both published in Physics Uspekhi, 44(8), 2001

This is the story of a young Red Army soldier who writes a letter to Stalin suggesting the use of thermonuclear synthesis for industrial purposes, who is then invited to Moscow and who prompts the later Nobel Prize Winners Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm to the idea of the “magnetic thermonuclear reactor”. After being kept in the Kremlin´s archives for the last 50 years, Oleg Lavrentiev´s notes have recently reappeared.

Oleg Lavrentiev was born on July 7, 1926, in Pskov, into a family of peasant origin. In school he got so exited about the possibility of initiating a nuclear chain reaction using Uranium isotopes that the 15 year old decided to devote his life to study nuclear physics. But the war disrupted his plans. In 1945 sergeant Oleg Lavrentiev was transferred to Sakhalin Island where he had the opportunity to borrow scientific literature from the library of his regiment and attend evening classes. In May 1949 he graduated from school, having covered three grades in one year.

When the president of the United States, Harry Truman, called on the American scientists to speed up the work on the hydrogen bomb the following year, the ambitious soldier took a courageous next step. He wrote a letter to Stalin, declaring that he knew how to build the hydrogen bomb. No reply arrived, which Lavrientiev attributed to the fact that most likely it had got lost in the flood of congratulations to Stalin´s 70th anniversary.

Lavrentiev didn´t give up. Several months later he wrote another letter, this time to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And this time the reply was prompt: Moscow ordered that the soldier be assigned a guarded room where he was to write his ideas down on paper. On July 29, 1950, the single-copy manuscript was delivered by secret mail to Moscow. Inside the “classified” envelope were his notes for the construction of the hydrogen bomb and a second proposal towards the use of the nuclear fusion reaction by means of electrostatic confinement of deuterium nuclei.

One month later, in August 1950, Lavrentiev requested to be demobilized from the military service and enrolled at the Moscow State University. Shortly after, he was asked once more by the Central Committee to write down his ideas on thermonuclear synthesis. Lavrantiev did as he was told and in January the following year he was asked to come to the Kremlin.

“On the minister´s desk laid a paper, beautifully printed and bound”, as Lavrentiev remembered later. Besides the desk there stood Andrei Sacharov. Sacharov was to review Lavrentievs´ work. Sacharov was not happy with the long ranges of particles, which would inevitably lead to undesirable interactions of high-energy particles with the construction materials. “But”, he admitted, “the author formulates a very important and not necessarily hopeless problem.”

In his memoirs, Sacharov later stated: “I was greatly impressed by the originality and boldness of those ideas that were produced independently, long before any publications on the issue started to appear. […] The first vague ideas on magnetic thermal insulation started to form, while reading his letter and writing the referee report. […] Lavrentiev´s work was an impetus to enhance the research on magnetic thermal insulation of high-temperature plasma conducted by myself and Tamm.”

By October 1950, Sacharov and Tamm completed their first evaluations of a magnetic thermonuclear reactor, supported by Igor Kurchatov. The rest is well known history. For Lavrentiev, things didn´t turn out bad either. He was granted privileges such as a larger scholarship, a furnished room, delivery of any scientific literature he needed and paid tutors. However, Lavrentiev, who in May this year was awarded the title “Honorary Worker of Science and Technology of Ukraine”, never made it to the spotlight of science. Until now, his story is only known to a small circle. It only became public when the once highly classified documents were found in the Kremlin´s archives in 2000. The Russian scientist Boris Bondarenko was one of the few to comment on Lavrentiev´s fate: “The founders of Controlled Nuclear Fusion with the magnetic confinement of hot plasma in thermonuclear reactors are believed to be Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm. This is true, of course, but the fact that the name of Oleg Lavrentiev is practically never mentioned in this context is certainly unfair.”

Oleg Lavrentiev and his family today live in Kharkov where he still passionately works on his ideas. Lately he has defended his dissertation on electrostatic traps. This July he celebrated his 80th birthday.

This article is based on articles by Boris Bondarenko and Vitali Shafranov, both published in Physics Uspekhi, 44(8), 2001

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